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How Brad Parscale Conned Donald Trump

What if the Trump campaign's digital operation is a Potemkin Death Star?
May 15, 2020
How Brad Parscale Conned Donald Trump
Brad Parscale, campaign manager for U.S. President Donald Trump, speaks before a rally (Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

1. Trump Digital

A lot has been written about the Trump campaign’s super-sophisticated digital operation. I am . . . not skeptical, exactly. But let me say this:

Brad Parscale has a very keen interest in making sure that his operation is portrayed as a gigantic, all-powerful black box.

In 2016, Trump cycled through campaign managers at a rapid clip. The only job security Parscale has comes from convincing Trump that he has built some magical machine which no one else—and especially not Old Man Trump—can understand. Or operate.

Creating the impression that the entire Trump campaign will rise or fall with an opaque digital operation is a way to make Parscale un-fireable. Because unlike the 2016 campaign, which was basically about letting Trump be Trump, there is now a great deal of sunk-cost into an operation which is purpose-built to keep the septuagenarian boss from understanding how it works. Or even, what it really is.

So let’s couple that with the reality that even very sophisticated tech operations are pretty not-great at predicting what people want.

How many “recommendations” that Netflix pushes at you do you watch relative to content you discover on your own?

How often do you buy one of the “people also bought” suggestions from Amazon?

I bring this up because yesterday a friend forwarded an email he recently got from the Trump campaign touting an interactive survey:

Super sophisticated, right? This is in line with all of the gamefication ideas you see Parscale pushing about how the campaign is turning Trump voters into active participants and yadda yadda yadda.

Well, scroll on down to Question 10 in the survey:


What I’m driving at here is that maybe Trump Digital really is a Death Star. But that’s a non-falsifiable proposition. The digital operation is too sprawling, too micro-targeted, and too evanescent for anyone to really have a handle on how effective it is.

All you can really do is look at the polls. And as Harry Enten wrote last weekend, Biden has the largest and steadiest lead any challenger has ever held against an incumbent.

As in: Ever.

I’m sure Big Brad will tell the boss that without his Magical Internet Machine he’d be losing to Biden by even more right now. And for all I know, that’s true.

But I kind of suspect it’s not.

In way, all of this is just one more sign of Trump’s weakness. In 2016, Trump bet on himself. He saw campaigns as basically superfluous and certainly viewed campaign managers as disposable cogs in the machine that is the cult of Donald J. Trump.

If Trump keeps Parscale around even as he lags Biden in the polls, it’s a sign that the president no longer believes that he is enough to get his voters out on his own and that he’s hostage to whatever sales pitch he bought from Parscale.

It’s a good reminder that inside every con man is a mark.

2. Serology

When we look back on this period, one of the artifacts of the coronavirus culture war that will look particularly ridiculous is the fight over serology tests and the precise fatality rate of COVID-19.

We had a pandemic. It killed scores of thousands of people. Figuring out the exact fatality rate for the virus is an interesting challenge and it’s data worth knowing. But the public fight about it was more performative than informative.

My buddies at the New Atlantis have a new piece about what’s actually useful in serology tests and how we should be approaching this data:

What difference does a fraction of a percentage point in the rate make to the actions we need to take to control the pandemic today? Do we open up malls at a 0.5 percent fatality rate, and wait until a study comes along that shows a 0.3 percent rate before we open hair salons? These estimates don’t tell us anything about how to make malls and hair salons safe to visit again, they merely tell us that we might not have to worry about doing so. They are tools for managing perceptions, not for managing the crisis itself.One potentially useful application of antibody tests could be in identifying people who have been exposed to the virus and are now immune, who can then work in higher-risk settings. Such “immunity passports” are controversial, not least because we still do not know with certainty whether, or for how long, the presence of particular antibodies against the virus will confer immunity. And of course the idea of issuing immunity passports raises a host of ethical and social issues — from discrimination against those lacking immunity to the perverse incentive they may create for people to seek out infection to acquire immunity. But as antibody testing improves we will need to decide whether as a society we want to use the tests to issue immunity passports, and how we might do so in a way that does more good than harm.

Another more immediate use of antibody testing could be finding recovered patients to serve as donors of antibody-rich blood serum, so-called “convalescent plasma” or “convalescent serum,” which some scientists have argued could be used to treat the disease or to confer short-term immunity to the virus for high-risk workers. Data from clinical trials of the treatment will be available soon, but early reports from its use in severely ill patients are promising, and the idea has a century-old track record of safety and efficacy for treating infectious diseases. However, finding recovered patients who are eligible and available to donate can be a logistical challenge, and each donor can provide only enough serum for treating 2 or 3 patients, so its usefulness is limited by the number of prospective donors we can identify.

As of this writing, we know of only about 195,000 recovered patients in the United States — about one for every six currently ill patients — so finding large numbers of recovered patients through antibody testing could allow for this treatment to become more widely available for those who need it the most. The simple tests used in these surveys may not be enough to determine if people have sufficient levels of antibody in their blood to serve as donors, but it could at least help identify prospective donors who could receive follow-up tests to determine their eligibility. As long as there are millions of unidentified people who have recovered from Covid-19, we should not allow a shortage of donors to hold back the availability of convalescent plasma therapy.

You should read the whole thing. And I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Please consider supporting the important work they’re doing, either by donating or subscribing. The New Atlantis is the best journal of science and technology in America and the work they’re doing now is incredibly important.

3. What We Owe to Each Other

The lede on this New Yorker piece is just lovely:

We are not accustomed to destruction looking, at first, like emptiness. The coronavirus pandemic is disorienting in part because it defies our normal cause-and-effect shortcuts to understanding the world. The source of danger is invisible; the most effective solution involves willing paralysis; we won’t know the consequences of today’s actions until two weeks have passed. Everything circles a bewildering paradox: other people are both a threat and a lifeline. Physical connection could kill us, but civic connection is the only way to survive.

Read the whole thing.

Jonathan V. Last

Jonathan V. Last is editor of The Bulwark.